The Quest to Save a Dutch Icon

by Mike Willemse

The Netherlands and the tulip are a combination that stands the test of time, for now. Postcards with fields of different coloured tulips can be found in almost every tourist shop. However, this idyllic picture could soon be an image of the past. Even though the Dutch are some of the best plant breeders little is known about the genetic processes happening in tulips. One researcher within the Molecular Plant Physiology group, PhD Candidate M. Aguirre-Bolaños, is working to prevent a possible disastrous future for this famous Dutch icon.

There are two main problems that the tulip faces in the near future and climate change is one of them. “Tulips need a period of cold in order to flower and those cold periods are becoming scarcer due to climate change” explains Aguirre-Bolaños. “When no cold period comes around, the tulip bulbs cannot flower properly”. A winter without cold periods is therefore disastrous for an industry that exports 400 million euros a year in the Netherlands alone.

The second problem, a need for harmful pesticides to protect the tulip fields, is linked to the reproduction cycle of the tulip and the resistance it has against diseases. “Going from tulip seed to flower can take up to 7 years while the tomato plant flowers within the year” explains the researcher. “Most of the resources and time of the breeders is spent on the development of flower types that sell well and less on disease resistance. Which results in the tulip requiring pesticides that are harmful to the environment as well.”

Going from tulip seed to flower can take up to 7 years while the tomato plant flowers within the year.

M. Aguirre-Bolaños - PhD candidate

The goals of research are focussed on the genetic changes over time in tulips, which help to understand why tulips take so long to flower for the first time. This knowledge may help to improve the precarious situation that the tulip is in. All the research is fundamental so direct benefits are not expected. More insight into the transcriptome of the tulip bulb during different phases in the tulip’s life might help to discover clues that tell us why a tulip bulb flowers after 5 to 7 years. If it is possible to shorten this time the breeding process can be quickened. “If we could reduce the flowering time to 2 years, that would already be a huge accomplishment.”

If we could reduce the flowering time to 2 years, that would already be a huge accomplishment.

A faster breeding process means that the breeders can also spend time to focus on breeding disease- and climate change resistant tulips. “More disease resistance would logically translate to less pesticides used, which lessens the impact on people and nature”. Moreover, the EU is researching the harmful effects of these pesticides which means that the current pesticides used to protect the tulip will be outlawed soon.

In the end, Aguirre-Bolaños hopes to translate the knowledge to save orchids from possible extinction in his native country, Mexico. Orchids face similar challenges as the tulips. “That would be the absolute dream”.